This flexible skin will help robots sense the world around them

university washington robot skin with arm
UCLA Engineering
Skin doesn’t just exist to keep our insides in; it’s also an incredibly useful material for sensing. Rather than having to rely on visuals to confirm that we are successfully grasping objects, we can feel them. That’s an ability that engineers at the University of Washington are keen to provide to robots — thereby making them more useful for a great deal of different tasks, ranging from moving objects in a warehouse to carrying out complex surgery.

“We have developed an artificial skin that can feel pressure and shear,” Jonathan Posner, professor of mechanical engineering and chemical engineering, told Digital Trends. “The skin mimics the way a human finger experiences tension and compression as it slides along a surface or distinguishes among different textures. As you slide your finger across a surface, one side of your nailbed bulges out while the other side becomes tight. We leveraged this effect in our artificial skin to generate asymmetric stretching. We measure how much the skin stretches using tiny channels that [are] filled with liquid metal, similar to mercury. When the channel geometry changes, so does the amount of electricity that can flow through them.”

university washington robot skin close up
UCLA Engineering
UCLA Engineering

The stretchable electronic skin was manufactured at the University of Washington’s Washington Nanofabrication Facility. It’s made from the same silicone rubber material that’s commonly used in swimming goggles, only with the addition of tiny channels the width of individual humans hairs, which are filled with electrically conductive liquid metal. The advantage of this conductive liquid metal is that it won’t crack or fatigue when stretched, which regular wires would do. In experiments, the artificial skin was able to detect tiny vibrations at a rate of 800 times per second, which is even superior to human fingers.

A paper describing the work, titled “Bioinspired flexible microfluidic shear force sensor skin,” was recently published in the journal Sensors and Actuators.

“[Next up,] we want to show that the sensors can be used to improve the manipulation of objects in a wide range of applications,” Posner continued. “We need to show that using the sensors can increase the capability of robotic and prosthetic hands in complex tasks.”

Now someone just needs to hook these researchers up with the folks building robot muscles. We’ll have real-life Westworld robots in no time!

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Booze-filled ski poles and crypto piggy banks

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

Self-driving dirt rally vehicle offers crash course in autonomous car safety

Georgia Tech's AutoRally initiative pushes self-driving cars to their limit by getting scaled-down autonomous vehicles to drive really, really fast and aggressively on dirt roads. Here's why.
Home Theater

The best movies on Netflix in December, from 'Buster Scruggs’ to endangered cats

Save yourself from hours wasted scrolling through Netflix's massive library by checking out our picks for the streamer's best movies available right now, whether you're into explosive action, witty humor, or anything else.
Computing

Nvidia’s Jetson AGX Xavier module is designed to give robots better brains

Nvidia's pricey Jetson AGX Xavier might help drive the next generation of smart robots. Nvidia hopes that developers will use its new Xavier module to power AI-driven machines like delivery drones and robots used in manufacturing.
Emerging Tech

This unusual nature-inspired robot is equally at home on land or in the water

This intriguing, nature-inspired robot may look unusual, but it's impressively capable of moving on both land and water without problem. Heck, it can even travel on ice if necessary.
Emerging Tech

Bright ‘hyperactive’ comet should be visible in the sky this weekend

An unusual green comet, 46P/Wirtanen, will be visible in the night sky this month as it makes its closest approach to Earth in 20 years. It may even be possible to see the comet without a telescope.
Emerging Tech

Meet the MIT scientist who’s growing semi-sentient cyborg houseplants

Elowan is a cybernetic plant that can respond to its surroundings. Tethered by a few wires and silver electrodes, the plant-robot hybrid can move in response to bioelectrochemical signals that reflect the plant’s light demands.
Emerging Tech

Gorgeous images show storms and cloud formations in the atmosphere of Jupiter

NASA's Juno mission arrived at Jupiter in 2016 and has been collecting data since then. NASA has shared an update on the progress of the mission as it reaches its halfway point, releasing stunning images of the planet as seen from orbit.
Emerging Tech

Beautiful image of young planets sheds new light on planet formation

Researchers examining protoplanetary disks -- the belts of dust that eventually form planets -- have shared fascinating images of the planets from their survey, showing the various stages of planet formation.
Emerging Tech

Delivery robot goes up in flames while out and about in California

A small meal-delivery robot suddenly caught fire in Berkeley, California, on Friday. The blaze was quickly tackled and no one was hurt, but the incident is nevertheless a troubling one for the fledgling robot delivery industry.
Emerging Tech

High-tech dancing robot turns out to be a guy in a costume

A Russian TV audience was impressed recently by an adult-sized "robot" that could dance and talk. But when some people began pointing out that its actions were a bit odd, the truth emerged ... it was a fella in a robot suit.
Emerging Tech

MIT’s smart capsule could be used to release drugs in response to a fever

Researchers have developed a 3D-printed capsule which can monitor patients' vital signs, transmit this information to a connected device, and release drugs in response to symptoms.
Emerging Tech

‘Crop duster’ robot is helping reseed the Great Barrier Reef with coral

In a world first, an undersea robot has delivered microscopic coral larvae to the Great Barrier Reef. Meet Larvalbot: the robot "crop duster" which dispenses coral babies on troubled reefs.
Features

Cities looking to get smart take a lesson from an iconic shopping mall

From Disney World to the Mall of America, public venues are becoming microcosms for smart city projects. We dove into both, to show what government officials can learn – and what you can expect from your city.